Article: BCATP Was a Breathtaking Canadian Undertaking That Helped the Allies Win WWII

  • Image of inside of BCATP aircraft repair hangar

    The Plan started in late 1939 with nothing except a promise. Five years later it ended, having graduated 131,553 aircrew

    by Ed Unrau
    Fall, 2010, Altitude

    Although the “footprints” of the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan are still evident in communities in every province from British Columbia to Nova Scotia, the plan deserves to be remembered not only for the vital role it played in winning the war for the Allies, but also because it was an important milestone in the evolution of Canadian national identity.

    The agreement creating the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan (BCATP) was signed in the early hours of December 17, 1939, in the Ottawa office of Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King, a date the prime minister considered auspicious because it was also his 65th birthday.

    The December agreement committed Canada to opening the first training schools by April 1940, not quite four months later. When fully developed, the plan was to be capable of graduating 1,460 aircrew monthly under the operational auspices of the Royal Canadian Air Force. This output target represented a breathtaking expansion of RCAF training capacity – the pre-war Canadian air force consisted of 4,171 personnel and trained 125 pilots annually on fewer than 200 aircraft useful for flight training.

    BCATP (renewed and revised in 1941) lasted until March 31, 1945. Over five years it graduated 131,553 aircrew – 49,808 pilots, 29,963 observers and navigators, 14,996 air gunners, 18,496 wireless/radio operators, 15,673 air bombers, 1,913 flight engineers, and 704 naval air gunners. The program graduated an average of 2,190 aircrew (including 830 pilots) each month over its duration, well above the 1,460 monthly objective. The plan also graduated between 40-45,000 ground crew tradesmen. At its peak in 1943, RCAF administered BCATP in four commands and 10,906 training aircraft.

    In western Canada, the decision to locate 41 pilot training schools and 11 ancillary aircrew training schools in 37 Prairie communities, both large and small, provided an enormous economic boost across a region still suffering from drought and economic depression.

    Canadian Nationalism

    Signed three months after the declaration of war, it is wrong to conclude that the Commonwealth training plan was developed in that short time. The seeds for the plan were planted in 1936 when the Royal Air Force first proposed training in Canada, primarily to benefit its own needs. The British air ministry favoured the idea because many officers remembered the Canadian contribution to First World War aviation. No action was taken apparently because there was no crisis creating a sense of urgency.

    In 1938 when the prospect of another European war was certain, the question of training aircrew in Canada was revived. Prime Minister King rejected the concept twice that year. The prime minister was in a difficult political situation. On the one hand he was being pressured by pro-British Canadians to support Britain unconditionally. On the other hand there was Quebec, whose population opposed an open-ended commitment of manpower (i.e., conscription) to a new European war. King’s public statements were vague enough to soothe both sides and stall for time.

    King’s stance, however, was also an attempt to assert Canadian sovereignty over the proposal. King resisted the British because he did not want the Canadian contribution to any new war buried within the history of the RAF, as was done during WWI. King insisted that any Canadian contribution to military aviation in a new war would be a contribution controlled by the Canadian government and that it would begin with the air training proposal.

    The Nazi invasion of Poland in September 1939, created the urgency for action. The air training plan finally took shape on the basis of a proposal by the British government to the governments of Canada, Australia and New Zealand on September 26, 1939. The Canadian government accepted it two days later.

    Negotiations started in Ottawa in earnest in mid-October and continued until the December 17th signing. The negotiations were completely dominated by Prime Minister King. According to Historian F.J. Hatch, King, realizing how important the scheme was to the United Kingdom, “put on a masterful display of diplomatic manoeuvring – bullying, threatening and cajoling – until he had wrung as many concessions as possible from the British representatives.”

    Hatch continues: “Yet, politics aside, the signing of the BCATP agreement was a momentous event. Strategically, it was important for three main reasons: it furnished air training fields that were reasonably close to the United Kingdom yet well beyond the reach of enemy aircraft, it provided a uniform system of training and laid the basis of the pooling of Commonwealth air power.”

    The British initially wanted the dominions to send manpower to RAF-controlled training programs with graduates enlisting in the Royal Air Force as the only operational force. Prime Minister King disagreed completely and on this point he laid a milestone in the evolution of Canadian national sovereignty. King insisted that the administration of any training plan in Canada be lodged with the Canadian government and that it be under the military command of the RCAF. To head off any possibility that Canadian aircrew would be subsumed within RAF operations, he further insisted an unspecified number of squadrons be designated as RCAF squadrons. The British reluctantly gave in on all points.

    Image of BCATP Harvard aircraft being refueled

    The Plan Unfolds

    The first BCATP training school opened as scheduled in Toronto in April 1940, with 221 trainees. The public relations pressure to send these graduates overseas was resisted because the need for instructors in the training plan was more important; thus, virtually all members of this class were retained in Canada.

    When the Battle of Britain was at its height in the summer of 1940, the British Commonwealth Air Training Program was just getting started. Training sites at existing air bases were the most developed, but others, especially those in western Canada, were still under construction or not even started. The summer of 1940 was one of “all out” work with an objective to finish all landing fields and buildings by mid-1941. Construction and training overlapped and there were many examples in western Canada of aircrew arriving for training before their airbases were ready. By the end of 1941, most facilities were complete and aircrew graduation rates were reaching the targets prescribed in the plan.

    Implementation of BCATP is a case study of a co-operative division of labour and resources. The federal Department of Transport had the task of selecting the sites (in consultation with the RCAF) and resisting the lobbying attempts of communities that believed they deserved to be chosen. Site selection had already started months before the December 1939 agreement and was largely complete by the time it was signed. The RCAF designed and built the buildings. To speed the process, a high degree of standardization was a feature of airfield layout and building design. Because of the scarcity of steel, a hangar design using fir timber trusses to provide clear spaces of more than 100 feet was developed. Timber was pre-cut at the mill and shipped to base sites so relatively inexperienced workers could assemble a hangar in days.

    It is something of an organizational miracle that most BCATP infrastructure was in place in mid-1941. Some observers compared it to building the Canadian Pacific Railway. Approximately 8,300 BCATP buildings were erected of which 701 were hangar or hangar-type constructions. Fuel storage facilities with a capacity totalling 26 million gallons were built; 300 miles each of water and sewer lines were placed and linked to 100 sewage treatment plants and 120 water pumping stations; and more than 2,000 miles of above ground and 535 miles of underground electrical cable were placed. Enough concrete was poured to pave a highway from Vancouver to Halifax.

    In western Canada it, of course, helped that the provincial governments and host communities were “on side,”so their decisions to improve roads and extend infrastructure to the training bases came easily. There is also a sense these communities looked beyond the war and saw the presence of an air base as something that would generate post-war benefit. The wave of men involved in base construction was replaced by an influx of support staff – overall, the plan in Canada employed more than 104,000 people in support roles. While the trainees were housed on the base, support staff were dispersed into the community creating housing shortages.

    With rare exceptions, the relations between the base and the host town were cordial and there were social, sports and cultural events designed to encourage interaction. In many communities the training bases provided players to local hockey, baseball and other teams when the war effort drained the community of its own athletic talent pool.

    Public/Private Partnership

    The quick run-up of BCATP would not have been possible without what today would be called public/private partnerships. The Royal Canadian Flying Clubs Association provided initial BCATP flying instruction, a decision that was a natural expansion of the instructional relationship many Canadian flying clubs had with the RCAF during the pre-war years. Qualifying clubs were recognized as crown corporations and were provided with training facilities, aircraft and ancillary equipment. The larger commercial aviation companies joined the public/private partnership to provide training in air navigation.

    RAF and the Allies

    The BCATP agreement also allowed the Royal Air Force to locate its own training schools in Canada. With the fall of western Europe to Nazi occupation in 1940, there was little room at British airfields and in its airspace for aircrew training. The initial British request to locate four schools in Canada quickly escalated – the Prairie provinces ultimately received 16 RAF schools.

    As the war progressed, Canada was host to airmen from Australia (9,606), New Zealand (7,002), as well as other Commonwealth countries. They came to Canada after initial flying instruction at home. In addition, BCATP accommodated almost 4,000 aircrew trainees from other allied countries.

    BCATP Overproduction

    Historian Hatch wrote that “if any criticism is to be made of the BCATP it is simply that it was too successful. By the end of 1943 it was running like a well-oiled machine and turning out pilots faster than they could be absorbed into operational squadrons.” In early 1944 the decision was made to slow down even though many men were either in training or waiting to begin. Those nearly finished their training were allowed to graduate but were told there was little chance of an overseas posting. New pilot recruits were offered transfers to other aircrew categories still requiring personnel, or transfers to either army or navy. The process of winding down BCATP accelerated with the success of the Normandy landings of June 1944.

    The Aftermath

    When the war ended it was predicted it would take years to untangle the claims and counter-claims of the Commonwealth partners for payments. In fact, it took only six months to produce a financial accounting that satisfied all parties. The BCATP’s total cost, in Canadian dollars, reached $2.2 billion, with Canada’s share amounting to $1.58 billion.

    It’s been argued that the civil aviation infrastructure in Canada received a huge boost from the decommissioned airbases. But the fact that only a handful of BCATP air fields support any aviation activity in 2010 is one indication that this impact on Canadian aviation was much more limited than that envisaged by BCATP planners, who chose the sites for exactly that reason. Hangars and outbuildings at the majority of sites were dismantled and/or moved into nearby communities where they found new non-military uses. Where there are surviving hangars only a few, notably at Edmonton and Brandon, are in good shape, while the rest still stand in spite of 70 years of little or no maintenance.

    Perhaps the greatest effect on Canadian civil aviation was the experience the air force pilots and ground crew brought back to Canada and its civilian aviation infrastructure. Their combined experience helped transcontinental and transatlantic passenger and cargo services to expand and mature quickly. Canada’s flying clubs also benefitted. During BCATP, 22 flying clubs provided elementary flight instruction and were rewarded when the Canadian government helped them rebuild their peacetime programs by supplying aircraft, Link trainers, trucks, and other ground equipment; the clubs also employed former BCATP instructors in their training programs.

    Instructors Ignored

    There are some sour notes in the post-war transition to civilian life. The men who spent their entire Second World War enlistment as instructors in the BCATP program were both baffled and angry to find that their demobilization severance pay was half that paid to anyone who saw overseas service. In fact, their training assignments were not even recognized as duty tours. In a further insult, instructor pilots were passed over for employment as pilots because Canadian employers preferentially hired pilots with overseas service, even if that service amounted to only one mission; this discrimination was practised by both civilian and government employers. In addition, BCATP veterans were denied benefits because their service history did not include a duty tour beyond the borders of Canada. While their students died as heroes in combat, instructors who died training students did so anonymously – official records say there were 856 fatal training accidents involving students, but no one counted the number of instructors who died training them.

    The cavalier dismissal of their flight experience is illustrated by the following comments from a BCATP flying instructor: “I felt that we had contributed tremendously. Not under the duress of fire, but our work wasn’t a lunch bucket job either. I put 28 full courses of pilots through on twins or singles. And yet we were looked on as chickens. They said operational pilots got shot out of the sky, while we just fell out of the sky.” Another instructor pilot was told by a large airline company, “if you’d gone over and done what operational pilots had for their country, you would have had experience under more detrimental conditions. And you would be better in the cockpit with 80 people behind you.” Then there was the 29-year-old pilot instructor with 3,000 hours of accident-free flying being told by an airline that it, “prefers bomber pilots between twenty-two and twenty-five years of age.” There was one employer who was an exception to this discrimination – Max Ward, former BCATP instructor and founder of Wardair. Ward looked for careful pilots who could be relied on to cope with weather and respect their aircraft and found that former instructors were among his best pilots.

    There was one other legacy arising from BCATP. When the Korean conflict started five years after the end of the Second World War, BCATP-trained pilots and aircrew provided a reservoir of talent in support of Canada’s contribution to United Nations forces deployed in the region.

    Image of BCATP facility at Souris, Manitoba during construction, circa early 1940s

    Sources
    • Barris, Ted. Behind the Glory: Training Heroes in Canadian Skies. Macmillan Canada, Toronto, 1992. (3)
    • Conrad, Peter C. Training for Victory: The British Commonwealth Air Training Plan in the West. Western Producer Prairie Books, Saskatoon, 1989
    • Dunmore, Spencer. Wings for Victory: The Remarkable Story of the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan in Canada. McClelland and Stewart Inc., Toronto, 1994.
    • Hatch, F.J. The British Commonwealth Air Training Plan, a paper presented to the Canadian Aviation Historical Society, 1979 convention, Ottawa. (1, 2)
    • Hatch, F.J. Aerodrome of Democracy: Canada and the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan 1939-1945. Directorate of History, Department of National Defence, Ottawa, 1983.
    • Smith, I. Norman. The British Commonwealth Air Training Plan. Commemorative edition of the MacMillan War Pamphlet Canadian Series, published by the Western Canada Aviation Museum on the occasion of the 1980 Commonwealth Wartime Aircrew Reunion, 1980.
    • Williams, James N. Memories of the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan. Canada’s Wings Inc., Stittsville, Ontario, 1984.
    This story originally appeared in the Fall, 2010 edition of Altitude. All photos are courtesy of the Commonwealth Air Training Plan Museum in Brandon, Manitoba.

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